Our Ocean Conference: A Turning Point for Ocean Conservation?

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By Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, Waitt Foundation; and Jacob James, Waitt Foundation

Ocean conservation is in need of action, not talk, but the Our Ocean Conference, hosted by Secretary John Kerry and the U.S. Department of State last week was not just hot air. Rather, it was worth its carbon footprint, and we were honored to attend.

All in attendance seemed to agree on the key challenges: sustainable management of fishing, the need for creation of marine reserves, reduction in greenhouse gases, and reducing ocean pollution. So the question quickly became: What steps can we take today and tomorrow to tackle these challenges?

The Our Ocean Conference provided a much-needed platform for governments, scientists, corporations, non-profit organizations, and philanthropists to collectively address this question.

The conference was unequivocally successful in several ways, including:

  1. Setting a deadline that forces entities to plan commitments they can announce publicly.
  2. Gathering decision makers and doers for all the valuable tangential business that gets done.
  3. Raising the profile of ocean issues in the mainstream media.

Map of Palau National Marine Sanctuary. (Source: Our Ocean Conference)

The conference-as-deadline resulted in a suite of notable announcements (PDF) including:

And, of course, we at the Waitt Foundation and Waitt Institute were certainly pleased when our Chairman, and National Geographic Board Member, Mr. Ted Waitt announced our commitment to five years of funding for the Fish Forever initiative, the release of MPAtlas.org’s Campaign Tracker, and the Waitt Institute’s new mission of partnering with governments to “empower communities to restore their oceans,” replicating the model created with the Barbuda Blue Halo Initiative.

Pretty cool hear Secretary Kerry give a shoutout in his closing remarks to our boss, recollecting when Mr. Waitt “told me he was really going to put his energy and focus into the oceans, and he has done that tremendously and importantly.”

As for media coverage, DiCaprio’s announcement made quite a splash in both the mainstream media (“Obama, Leonardo DiCaprio vow efforts to protect the ocean – The Washington Post”) and Twitter. And it was a thrill to see coverage by the Washington Post (see: editorial), The New York Times (see: editorial), Time Magazine, and others. The social media reach of the event paled compared to the world up, but dwarfed other ocean events.

Graph of Twitter mentions of #OurOcean2014 by Upwell (See: upwell.us)

All told the Our Ocean Conference is said to have garnered over $800 million in ocean conservation commitments. And it was exciting to see many of the initiatives funded by the Waitt Foundation be highlighted, from Pristine Seas’ work with Kiribati, to Oceans 5’s work with the Cook Islands, to The Nature Conservancy’s work toward The Bahamas’ burgeoning MPA network, to Pew’s to Global Ocean Legacy’s work with Palau, to the Barbuda Blue Halo Initiative being featured as a top ocean conservation success story.

While many positives came from the Our Ocean Conference, we found ourselves left yearning for facilitated deep discussions that would force attendees to grapple with tough issues, and co-create a strategic action plan to address these issues. This is hard, but it is necessary – there is still work to be done to get global actors on the same page for recovering our oceans’ health. However, we commend the State Department on producing an action plan document (PDF).  Further, the Waitt Foundation & Institute proudly join in the State Department’s support the creation of a standalone Sustainable Development Goal at the United Nations that addresses ocean issues.

Map of Phoenix Islands Protected Area (Source: www.phoenixislands.org)

Broadly, it was heartening (though long overdue) to see much needed attention turn to the ocean last week.  Following on the heels of the conference was the release of the Global Ocean Commission’s recommended “Rescue Package for the Global Ocean” that identifies concrete priorities for sweeping international reforms.

It has been a positive few weeks for building inertia on ocean issues. Realists though we are, we hope to look back on June 2014 as a turning point for how we manage 71% of our planet, as the date when ocean conservation talk turned to serious action on a global scale.

Ted Waitt, Ayana, and Jacob James at the Our Ocean Conference.

This piece was originally published on June 27, 2014 on the National Geographic blog.

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